Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 3) Handout
You can view the research and background information that goes into this sermon by clicking here.
7th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10)
(Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Thursday, July 12, and Sunday, July 15, 2007
Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey paints the picture of what it meant for the Good Samaritan to take the wounded man on his own donkey, ride into town, put him up at the inn, and care for him. There’s an unwritten shock in the parable of Jesus, a shock only heard by people living in the context of the story, a shock lost on us, but when Bailey changes the location and races of the characters, we today might have a better sense of the impact Jesus meant to have with this parable.
Bailey writes that the Good Samaritan is like “a Plains Indian in 1875 walking into Dodge City with a scalped cowboy on his horse, checking into a room over the local saloon, and staying the night to take care of him. Any Indian so brave would be fortunate to get out of the city alive even if he had saved the cowboy’s life” (52).
Why would the rescuer’s life be threatened? Why would the Indian have risked being killed? Because it would have been assumed that the Indian had scalped the cowboy. Indians in the 19th century were killed for far less, and no one would have stopped to ask questions. By attempting to get the cowboy safely into town, the Indian essentially would have been giving up his own life to save that cowboy.
That’s the kind of reaction a Samaritan could very well have faced if he had brought a wounded Jew into town. The Jews were filled with such disdain for the Samaritans that no one would have stopped to ask questions. The townspeople would have assumed the Samaritan had injured the wounded man—or at least they would have put the blame on the Samaritan just for being near the scene. Someone had to take the blame for robbing and beating up and leaving the man to die, and the Samaritan certainly would have been the easiest to blame. Instead of putting his picture on the front page of the paper for being a hero, the Samaritan would have ended up listed as a convicted criminal, killed by street justice.
Just like how I didn’t have to explain what Bailey was implying with the antagonism between cowboys and Indians in 1875, the people who heard Jesus tell this parable didn’t need all of this spelled out in the story. They lived in the culture. They heard the story and were shocked by the outcome. They heard this parable about a Samaritan who lived in a way that was far more loving than they could have imagined a Samaritan to be, a Samaritan who risked everything to save a wounded Jew. It was a parable that challenged everything they thought about how to treat their neighbors—even challenging them to realize that they needed to show love and compassion to people outside of their circle, their culture, their society.
As often as I’ve heard people teach the parable of the Good Samaritan, they most often say it means we need to serve our neighbor—even if it is costly to us. Maybe once in awhile I’ve heard a preacher or Bible study leader emphasize that we’ve got to cross social boundaries to serve all people, but rarely, if ever, have I heard someone emphasize—like Bailey—that the Samaritan risked his life by taking the wounded man into town. The Good Samaritan has always been a celebrated hero, and so I guess I just always assumed that that’s what he was in the parable, too. Sort of like how we now have outrage over a Good Samaritan being killed when they stop to help someone at the side of the road, it seems illogical to us that the Good Samaritan could have been killed for taking that wounded man into town. Yet, that’s certainly part of the story if we understand the culture correctly.
And while the parable of the Good Samaritan certainly encourages us to live our lives in such a way as to take risks to serve other people—even people who might be so different, removed, and even distasteful to us—it doesn’t seem like this parable is just about us taking risks to serve other people. Love certainly is willing to take risks to serve others—and we may have chances to take risks to serve strangers, but very rarely will we actually have to put our lives on the line. Jesus is painting a picture of love, the depth of our love, respect, and care for others, what it really means to have the love of God flow through our lives. Jesus is painting a picture of that love, but I don’t think the Good Samaritan’s great risk means that a Christian love for others will always be that dramatic. Most of the time it is just in the simple things: helping someone broken down on the road, carrying a stranger’s groceries to their car, or helping someone look in the grass for the keys they dropped at the park. As much as the parable of the Good Samaritan encourages us to serve other people, perhaps it’s also important to remember that we’re not the real hero.
Just recently I came across a country singer named Donna Beasley who has a song titled, “Good Samaritan,” which points us to this side of the parable: we’re not the hero, don’t try to be the hero, there’s another hero. Listen to a couple of stanzas from the song. (Click to hear clip).
Don't crucify me
'Cause I will not rise again
I am not your savior
I'm just a good Samaritan
Don't take me like medicine
My elixir is impure
I can treat your symptoms
But I am not the cure
Lyrics and music by Donna Beasley, Bless Her Heart Music (ASCAP) © 2007. Used by permission. www.donnabeasley.com
The song caught my attention—not just because I heard it when I had already started working on this sermon—but also because it goes against our typical way of approaching the parable. We start aiming to be like the Good Samaritan, “go and do likewise,” Jesus says, and suddenly, we find ourselves focusing on ourselves, on our actions. It’s good to go and serve other people—regardless of race, color, creed, economic status, cool or uncool, law-abiding or criminal—it’s good to be a Good Samaritan, but not if we start to think of ourselves as the savior, thinking of ourselves as being able to save people in a way that only God can. It’s good to be a Good Samaritan, but not if we think that we can fulfill the Law and be saved. If that’s what we think, if we read this parable and think that this is how we can be sure that Jesus will let us in the pearly gates, well, then, we’re no different than the lawyer who wanted to justify his actions, make himself look good in God’s eyes.
Perhaps the best way to avoid this trap is see the parable in a completely different way. You see, parables are like that. There’s often more than one way to see the story, more than one truth being taught. Jesus taught with parables, stories, and metaphors, because they’re complex, deep, and rich. Looking at them from different angles reveals different truths from God. The parables, to be sure, all point to God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and His truth, but those parables say many things about our God, point to many teachings from Scripture.
So with the parable of the Good Samaritan, instead of just focusing on what it tells us to do, read it to see what it tells us about Jesus Himself. Jesus is the Samaritan walking down the road and finds us in the ditch. Our sin is like the bunch of robbers who came, stole our security, pride, and identity, beat us up, and left us for dead. Jesus is the Samaritan who comes near to bind up our wounds. Of course, if we’re the wounded Jew in the ditch, that makes Jesus our enemy, the Plains Indian to our cowboy, a person we have come to think as vile, disgusting, rejected, trash, less than human—which is exactly how we as sinners think of Jesus.
Our sin reacts to Jesus like the Jews reacted to the Samaritans, like the cowboys reacted to the Indians, like we react to our enemies. I’m not saying the Jews were right for being racist against the Samaritans, I’m not defending the way Americans treated the Indians, I’m not supporting our prejudices against enemies today, but that kind of gut reaction of hatred that grows in us when we let it, that kind of reaction is how our sin reacts to Jesus. We don’t want anything to do with Him; we don’t want to hear what He has to say; we surely don’t think He could actually do anything good for us; we’re not interested in His help—we’d rather die in the ditch than let Jesus save us.
Do you see it now? You’re in the ditch; Jesus stopped to save you—you, His enemy. He wasn’t the hero on the front page; He was the criminal killed by street justice on the hill outside of town.
Jesus is the Good Samaritan. We might do some actions like the Good Samaritan, might serve people—even serve our enemies—by helping them change a tire or get to a hospital, but that will never make us the Good Samaritan. Jesus is the Good Samaritan in a full, complete way. Donna Beasley’s song mentions how as a Good Samaritan we still can’t be a savior, but Jesus can be the Good Samaritan who really fulfills all of our needs. He was crucified and could rise again from the dead. He can be our Savior—not just a helper along the way. His medicine, elixir is pure and can cure—not just cover up the symptoms. He can truly heal our sin.
So imagine the scene one more time; let Bailey paint the shocking picture in terms that we can understand today. But let the picture point us to see who Jesus is, what Jesus does for us, how He comes to our rescue in a spiritual, eternal, cosmic, mysterious, divine way.
Jesus is the Plains Indian in 1875 walking into Dodge City. You are the cowboy, scalped, bleeding, dying, perched precariously on the Indian’s horse. You’re holding onto consciousness somehow, and you can see the townspeople, the whites, ready to do as they usually do when an Indian comes into town—spit on him, yell out curses and vulgarities, throw rocks, or try to chase him back out of town. If you weren’t so badly injured, you’d probably do the same thing. As much as you know you need this Indian’s help, you’ve been dreading the fact that you’ve had to spend so much time near him as you rode to town. You’re just like everyone else, caught up in your own sinful pride, thinking that Indians lack intelligence and the ability to be anything more than savages. You’d never admit that you were grateful for this Indian’s help; you wouldn’t try to stop the townsfolk from hanging the Indian even though you know he’s innocent of any crime.
The Indian picks you up off the horse and takes you into a room over the local saloon. Surprisingly, you hear the manager say that Indian had already paid for the room, and you know the robber’s left you with no money so it must have been the Indian’s money. In your delirium, you pass out on the bed, waking feverishly a few times during the night, realizing that the Indian is there tending to your wounds.
In the morning, you wake to find the manager’s wife bringing you breakfast, trying to get you to eat and build up some strength. The Indian is gone. When you ask about him, the manager’s wife says the Indian had left just a little bit ago, as soon as the sun was coming up, although he woke her husband to give him enough money for you to stay in the room for a week. Again, you almost exclaim how grateful you are, but you can’t. You can’t be seen to be a friend to a savage.
Just then, outside you hear a great commotion, a mob, an angry crowd of people calling out with one voice, “Hang him!” Even if you were able to get out of bed and look out the window, you wouldn’t have to. You know what’s happening. The mob had waited until morning, waited until the Indian emerged from the saloon, and now they were going to punish him, kill him, for what they assume he did to you. The Indian is innocent, but you keep quiet. What business is it of yours.
Two days later, you’re finally able to be back on your feet and take a short walk in town. That’s when you see that they’ve left the Indian’s body hanging from a tree just outside of town, left it there as a warning to other Indians. That’s when you see the Indian’s gentle face, gentle hands, the hands that cared for you and saved your life. That’s when you realize what was so hard to realize before, so hard because it had been ingrained in you to think of Indians only as savages, but you realize that this Indian had been your savior. And you cry with the guilt of knowing your silence, your sin, meant that this Indian had been killed.
Now that you’ve seen the picture, now you are you. You are wounded, bleeding, and dying from your sins, and Jesus is the Indian who has come to save you. Your sin makes you react with a vicious anger at the Lord, but Jesus came to save you anyway. Your sin meant He was hung on the cross, but through the Holy Spirit, through knowing what Jesus has done for you, through seeing that Jesus was the Good Samaritan killed for serving you, now you cry knowing that He did it all to save you. This isn’t just about you being a good Samaritan; this is about the Good Samaritan who risked everything for you—and the whole world.